Fannie Gayle brings her culinary skills from Front Street to Main Street

Published 12:00 am Sunday, June 26, 2005

The musicians won’t be the only ones cooking when the Main Street Jazz Restaurant opens this fall. Fannie W. Gayle, who for years owned the eclectic Front Street Restaurant and Tavern in downtown Suffolk, will be making her own sweet music in the new club’s kitchen.

Ending their six-month search for an executive chef, Main Street owners Horace Balmer and Sherwin Turner on Tuesday hired Gayle – taste untested – to head up the restaurant’s kitchen.

&uot;The positive publicity that she still generates in Suffolk is amazing,&uot; Balmer said. &uot;So many people have just marveled at her food…that I wouldn’t even embarrass her by asking for a taste test.

Email newsletter signup

&uot;It took us a while to find her because no one knew where she lived,&uot; said Balmer. &uot;But we were destined to find her…and we didn’t want to risk losing her when we finally did.&uot;

Gayle, who only recently found out about plans for the jazz club, wasn’t looking for another culinary position. But after an extended break from the business – and a short stint working in the benefits division of a company – she was beginning to miss the kitchen.

&uot;I didn’t even take a resume on the interview,&uot; Gayle said. &uot;I returned his call and agreed to talk to them…but I wasn’t really expecting anything.

&uot;I was overwhelmed when they offered me the job. They had never even tasted anything I cooked.&uot;

Renovations to the two-story restaurant and jazz club, poised to get under way in early July, won’t be finished until early fall. But Gayle is already on board, helping design the menu and working with planners to create the ideal kitchen.

&uot;I want the menu to be derived from old standards with a few new twists and turns,&uot; said Gayle, a self-proclaimed &uot;adventurous cook.&uot;

&uot;The menu will revolve around jazz,&uot; Gayle said. &uot;The roots of jazz are from New Orleans so there will be a lot of southern, Creole and Cajun foods served.&uot;

For example, she said, diners at Main Street might find herb-fried chicken, peanut-encrusted flounder, collards and banana cream pie drizzled with caramel.

Gayle made the &uot;heart-wrenching&uot; decision to close Front Street in January 2004, months after Hurricane Isabel’s devastation resulted in several days of lost revenue and continued difficulties in finding dining room help.

&uot;I hated to leave, …it was devastating for me,&uot; she said. &uot;Front Street was my baby but I just couldn’t run the dining room and kitchen at the same time.

&uot;I was mentally and physically exhausted when we closed for Christmas vacation that year.&uot;

Gayle studied culinary arts during the 1970s at the hand of Lucy Lane Kelly, a chef who trained at the internationally acclaimed Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. Before opening Front Street in 1992, Gayle spent nearly two decades as regional manager of The Sword and Kilt, a string of upscale eateries located in the former Thalhimer’s Department Store chain.

&uot;I had always wanted to open my own restaurant,&uot; Gayle said. &uot;The time seemed right when Thalhimer’s decided to close its restaurants.&uot;

At first, it wasn’t easy carving her niches on the palates of Suffolk diners, Gayle recalled.

&uot;My tastes…and the types of cuisine I offered were different from anything else in Suffolk at that time,&uot; she said.

Though she’s been gone for less than two years, Gayle sees welcome change on the downtown business landscape.

The opening of the Hilton Garden Inn and Suffolk Conference Center – along with the string of other eateries that have opened in the downtown corridor over the past 18 months-will be good for business, she said.

&uot;…I’m excited to be coming back,&uot; she said. &uot;The reception so far has been heart-warming.

&uot;I’m looking forward to seeing a lot of people I lost contact with in the past.&uot;